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Film Review: Dances with Wolves

Updated on September 6, 2016


In 1990, Kevin Costner released Dances with Wolves, based on the 1988 novel of the same name by Michael Blake. Starring Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A Grant, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Tantoo Cardinal, Jimmy Herman, Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse and Michael Spears, the film grossed $424.2 million at the box office. Nominated for multiple awards, including the Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Art Direction - Set Decoration, and Best Costume Design, the Golden Globe Awards for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama, best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture, and Best Original Score - Motion Picture, the Berlin International Film Festival Golden Berlin Bear, the Cesar Award for Best Foreign Film, and the David di Donatello Awards for Best Foreign Actor and Best Foreign Film, the film won numerous other awards, such as the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Film Editing and Best Original Score, the Golden Globe Awards for Best Director - Motion Picture, Best Screenplay - Motion Picture, and Best Drama - Motion Picture, and the Jupiter Awards for Best International Actor, Best International Film, and Best International Director.


After United States Army Lieutenant John Dunbar is positioned in a fort on the expanding western frontier, he ends up being the only person there. While waiting for reinforcements, he befriends a wild wolf and makes contact with a neighboring Sioux tribe. They nickname him Dances With Wolves because of his relationship with said wolf.


Though a long film that makes three hours feel like six, Dances with Wolves is still a pretty good film as it balances both views of Native Americans, showing that they were neither the completely peace loving ideal group that some media portray them nor the hyper violent murderous group that others do. Rather, it presents the idea that they are their own people that have their own culture with varying differences between the tribes. Further, said tribes don’t always see eye to eye. It shows that some, like the Sioux may be somewhat aggressive, but their land is being encroached on and their buffalo are being wiped out. It makes sense that they’d be cautious, but on the other hand, there’s the Pawnee who are portrayed in the opposite manner, namely that they’re the kind to shoot first and ask questions never.

The film also goes further than just a balanced portrayal of the Native Americans in that it presents just how brutal the Civil War was. It shows that the North wasn’t free of its cruel and barbarous acts and neither was the South, even going so far as to depict some Union soldiers as dirty cowards. The conditions are also shown in the beginning (the fact that Dunbar’s foot was slated to be amputated, but he was left wide awake and in pain while the doctors went for a pick me up), which are what drive him to try and commit suicide, albeit unsuccessfully.

The film is not without its problems though. While it quite deserved its award for Best Cinematography, seeing as it has beautiful shots in nearly every scene, those shots tend to linger and overstay their welcome. This has been noted before in different films as giving the viewer sensory overload, but also serves to make the pacing of the film incredibly slow. Though it’s three hours, or four if watching the extended edition, it feels like at least six are passing.

There’s also the accusations that the film employs a White Savior Plot, where Dunbar becomes the Sioux tribe’s protector after becoming one of them. While those elements are present in the film, it seems to balance that by giving good characterization to the major Native American characters. Further, when the Sioux were off fighting the Pawnee, of course Dunbar would be the only one to be able to organize the remaining people to fight off the raiding party because he’s the only one there with the knowhow to do so and was tasked with it. It seems to suggest that rather than Dunbar becoming one of them and thus their protector that the film more portrays Dunbar as becoming one of them and really understanding them and the cultural differences between the Native Americans and the White Man. What's more, title card at the end, which states that the Sioux were forced to surrender to the US Government, doesn’t suggest that the tribe would have been able to push the US back. After all, the US government was growing in power and able to have the advantage over the tribe. That makes everything harder.

3 stars for Dances with Wolves

the postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent WNI's positions, strategies or opinions.


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